ASU researchers hope to help solve homicides

Scales of justice and jail

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – One day soon, microorganisms in a body may help homicide investigators determine a more exact time of death.

A team of researchers at Alabama State University are taking a closer look at what happens to microbial cells after humans die. Principal investigator Gulnaz Javan said the project is “just beginning,” but early results have shown promise.

Javan’s work with Peter Noble in ASU’s DNA Sequencing Laboratory has shown that there is relationship between the microorganisms in our bodies and the time that has elapsed since death. That means the microorganisms can tell them how long a person has been dead, which is important in murder cases.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the team a $200,000 research grant to further their study. It’s the first grant for ASU’s forensic science program and will allow undergraduate and graduate students to be involved in molecular biology research.

Funding is crucial to the work.

“It’s a very complicated procedure, and it costs a lot of money,” said team member Ismail Can, a graduate student who works to isolate and sequence DNA as part of the process.

Javan is hoping to land other grants for more forensic science research being done at the school.

Sheree Finley, a Ph.D. student and 14-year ASU chemistry teacher, is working on a separate project that’s analyzing microorganisms found in soil underneath bodies. The hope is to find a correlation between those organisms and time of death.

Finley said it’s rewarding because she’s not just “doing research for the sake of doing research,” but also trying to find answers to real-world problems.

Javan said the work also helps students at ASU’s Forensic Science Department, which she said has recently placed graduates in key industry positions across the state.

For Can, it’s rewarding on a different level.

“When I was a child, my uncle was a police officer,” he said. “I admired him, and I told myself I would serve justice like he did. But in time, I realized I liked biology.

“In this project, I can do molecular biology and serve justice at the same time. So it’s like a dream is coming true for me.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser

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